New Charges for Checked Baggage

February 8, 2008

When I travel, I typically take one carry-on and -- depending on my destination -- one checked bag. My carry-on contains my laptop, camera, usually my toiletries and whatever shoes didn't fit into the suitcase I've checked, plus some books, magazines, and (hopefully) a little space for the tchotchkes I plan on purchasing while away.

That's pretty easy to do when going on a seven-night Caribbean cruise; one checked bag is usually quite sufficient. Warm-weather clothing takes up much less room than bulky sweaters for cool-weather travel. But when I sailed from Buenos Aires to Santiago, I packed for any contingency, and I am glad I did. It was really hot in B.A., really cold in Port Stanley and on deck while going around Cape Horn, really rainy in Ushuaia, and really windy in Punta Arenas. Santiago was hot, just like Buenos Aires was. I had to pack for 17 days, and the cruise left in January, meaning that it was cold upon our return to the U.S. Two checked bags? You bet.

Now there's a new wrinkle in bag checking. As if new security measures, passport requirements and fuel surcharges weren't enough to baffle cruisers these days, United Airlines has just announced a policy to charge most coach-class passengers a fee of $25 for checking a second bag. We're certain that if it works for them, the other major airlines will soon follow.

If you are a gold- or platinum-level frequent flyer with United or any of its Star Alliance partners, you won't have to pay the fee, but if you are just a regular traveler, even a member of Mileage Plus who hasn't reached gold status, you'll have to pony up the $25 extra charge to check a second bag. Remember, too, that a few years ago, all of the domestic U.S. airlines reduced the allowable weight from 70 to 50 pounds per checked bag. Going over the 50-pound limit can also cost you dearly; on a graduated scale starting at 51 pounds, a surly check-in agent can charge you from an additional $50 to $200 U.S.

European carriers are even more penurious with luggage weight issues. British Airways, Air France and Vueling, for example, allow you to check 20 kilos, or about 44 pounds, before the overage fees kick in.

The best thing you can do is carefully check your airline's policy before you pack, make sure to pack accordingly, and be prepared to pay on the spot if you go over the weight or allowable bag limit. So far the other major U.S. airlines (Delta, Northwest, American, USAirways and Continental) are holding firm at two checked bags allowed with no surcharge.

We'll keep you posted if that changes (and we are just cynical enough to think when that changes....).

--by Jana Jones, Cruise Critic contributor